shutterstock_138587036

A couple of weekends ago the annual Pride Parade shut down the city center here in Toronto. It capped what had already been a 10-day Pride Toronto festival. The parade gave an opportunity for the LGBTTIQQ2SA* communities to declare their pride in who they are, and they did it by parading through the heart of the city. The event was publicized, televised, and celebrated.

At the same time, I was preaching the next text in a series of sermons and came to Romans 1:16-17 where the Apostle Paul declares some pride of his own. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he says. He was writing to this church in Rome to tell them of his desire to travel to their city for the specific purpose of preaching the gospel to them and to the people around them. The reason he wanted to do this was his gospel pride. He was proud of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe it.

And I found myself wondering, Why is the gospel more offensive than a pride parade? Why is gospel pride scorned while gay (and lesbian and trans and…) pride is cheered? After all, the parade, its floats, its participants, its nudity, its blatant sexuality—these things could easily be offensive to many people. My family has been warned by gay people not to take our kids anywhere near it because of what it would expose them to. Yet our culture celebrates LGBTTIQQ2SA* and mocks the gospel. In a world of crazy ideas, the gospel sounds like the craziest one of all. Why?

Because of this: The gospel is the one message that counters everything we want to believe about ourselves and about God. It counters the message of Pride Toronto, it counters the message of liberal Christianity, it counters the message of atheism, it counters the message of Mormonism, it counters the message of humanism, it counters every single message outside of itself.

We want to believe that we are autonomous, but the gospel assures us we are under the jurisdiction of God. We want to believe that we are good at heart, but the gospel says we are far worse than we could possibly imagine. We want to believe we are wise, but the gospel says we are foolish. We want to define ourselves by our desires and preferences, but the gospel says that God has already defined us in the act of creating us. We want to believe that we can do whatever we want today without fear of eternal consequences, but the gospel unapologetically declares that there will be the most fearsome and eternal consequences for our sin. That is an offensive message. That is an ultimately offensive message.

Gay pride and its many extensions—that is an easy sell. It is selling candy to children, crack to addicts, ESVs to Calvinists. It is simply giving people what they crave. It is reassuring them of what they long to believe. It is allowing them to celebrate what they already love.

But the gospel cuts against the grain with a message that counters it all: You are disobedient, you are dead, you are doomed. (And, of course, until Christ found me I, too, was disobedient and dead and doomed.) This bad news of the gospel is so offensive (yet so demonstrably true!) that few people stick around to hear the good news—the good news that there is hope and forgiveness and freedom for those who will put their faith in Jesus Christ and receive his salvation. The bright stars are only visible against the dark sky, and the ultimate joy of the gospel only shines against the ultimate bad.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Earlier in the week I came across a powerful quote, and one that came at just the right time, helping me formulate some thoughts I had been trying to express. This comes from John Frame’s Systematic Theology, and it challenges each one of us to understand, believe, and obey the sheer authority of God’s Word.

When God Commands, we are to obey. When he asserts, we are to believe him. When he promises, we are to embrace and trust those promises. Thus, we respond to the sheer authority of God’s word.

Adam and Eve had no way of testing what God told them about the forbidden fruit. They couldn’t work any experiment that would show them whether God had rightly predicted the effects of the fruit. They simply had to take God at his word. Satan interposed a contrary interpretation, but the first couple should not have taken his opinion seriously. They should simply have believed God. They did not, of course. They sided with Satan rather than God–or, perhaps better, they claimed that their own authority transcended God’s. That is to say, they claimed autonomy. They claimed that they themselves were the highest authority, the ultimate criterion of truth and right.

The NT praises Noah (Heb. 11:7), Abraham (Rom. 4:1-25; Heb. 11:8-19), and many others because of their faith, and their faith was grounded in God’s word. They simply believed what God said and obeyed him. So for new covenant believers: if they love Jesus, they will do what he says (John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:7, 10, 14; 17:6, 17; 1 John 2:3-5; 3:22; 5:2-3; 2 John 6).

So we should think of God’s word as a personal communication from him to us. In DWG, I presented this as a general way of thinking about the word of God: the personal-word model. Think of God speaking to you as a real person would–as directly as your parents, your spouse, your children, your friends. Many in Scripture heard such speech from God, such as Noah, Abraham, and Moses.

And when God speaks, his word carries authority. This means that it imposes obligations. When God commands, he expects us to obey. When he brings information, we are to believe him. When he promises, we should embrace his promises.

If God really talked to you, as he did to Abraham, you would not (if you know what is best for you) criticize his words or disagree with him.

Tim Challies

I trust God with my soul. I do. I have no other hope in life and death but the confidence that I am in Christ for all eternity. I trust God with my soul, but for some reason have a much tougher time trusting him with the souls of my kids. I wonder if you can identify with the struggle.

I am convinced that God saved me by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I did nothing to merit this salvation. There is nothing in me that turned God’s eye in my direction. There is no vestige of goodness that compelled him to look my way. I was not seeking him when he began seeking me. It was all of his grace without even the smallest bit of my merit. I added nothing to my salvation but the sin that made it necessary.

I believe all this about myself, but somehow find it more difficult to believe when it comes to my children. Now it’s not quite as simple as you might think: I have seen enough of my kids to know that they suffer from the same total depravity as their father. I know they have no merit to bring before the Lord. No, my problem is deeper than that, and a little more difficult to root out.

When it comes to my kids, I seem to want to believe that God’s action is dependent upon my action. I believe that for God to save my kids, I first need to do the right things. If I want God to save them, I need to cross the spiritual t’s and dot the spiritual i’s. And if I don’t, well, their salvation may just be questionable. When it comes to their eternal destiny, it’s like he isn’t looking to their good deeds, but to mine, as if they will be justified by my merit or condemned by my lack of merit.

I don’t actually articulate this, but I see it trying to manifest itself in my life.

I see it when family devotions subtly switch from a time of worshipping God to a means of twisting God’s arm: If I do family devotions every day, will you save them then? Or perhaps more clearly: If I don’t do it for a couple of days, are they still savable?

I see it when my decisions come from a place of fear rather than a place of confidence and when I determine that what is best for the kids must be what looks safest for them: If I choose this school or that league, could that somehow remove them from your grace? Will it all be my fault?

I see it when I ask them how they are doing with their personal devotions and realize I am not asking out genuine concern to see how they are pursuing the Lord and what they are learning from him. Instead, I am asking them because personal devotions are one more way that dad ought to be nudging God toward my kids.

I see it when I pray for them and I am almost tempted to tell God why he owes it to me to save them: God, I’ve done what I can and I’ve done pretty well; won’t you save them now? What more do I have to do to know that they are saved? What do I need to do to set them up for salvation?

In those ways and many more I seem to think that I can earn my kids’ salvation. And if I can’t earn it through my good deeds, surely I can at least negate it by my negligence. Can’t I?

Centuries ago a man named Isaac had two children, one of whom loved and followed the Lord and one of whom rejected and abandoned the Lord. There must have been someone who looked at Esau, and then looked at Isaac and Rebecca and said, “I wonder what they did wrong? What did they do that messed up that boy?” But God said, “Isaac I have loved and Esau I have hated.” It was all in God’s hands and it was all part of his good plan. It wasn’t what the parents did or didn’t do. It was God’s good will. The good and kind and loving God ruled over it all.

And the same is true for my children. They can’t earn their salvation and I can’t earn it for them. I believe the Lord has saved or will save them and they will be saved not by their father but like their father—by trusting in Christ and Christ alone as he opens their eyes to see him and as he opens their hearts to receive him. Their souls are in the good hands of the good God. And I, of all people, can testify that there is no better place for them to be.

31 Days of Purity

Through the month of March, I am inviting you to 31 Days of Purity—thirty-one days of thinking about and praying for sexual purity. Each day features a short passage of Scripture, a reflection on that passage, and a brief prayer. Here is day twenty-eight:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)

God tells us that victory over sin is certain—even those sins we have held to for so long. This can be hard to believe when we look to the past and see only failure after failure. It can be hard to believe when sin’s power is so strong and when giving in to sin promises such satisfaction. Yet we must believe that in Christ we are new creations—the old has gone and the new has come. In Christ we are becoming who we are, increasingly taking hold of who we are in Him. Where we once delighted to do evil, we can have confidence that one day we will delight to avoid evil. Where we once hated to do what is right, we can have confidence that one day we will delight to do what is right.

We really can hope and believe for such radical change. However, there may be a long period of time and many struggles between the two extremes. It rarely happens overnight. In that period where you are battling hard against sin, where you are developing new patterns of doing what is right instead of doing what God forbids, be sure to celebrate the small victories. Each of those victories is an evidence of God’s grace in your life. When you choose to do the right thing instead of the sinful thing, give thanks to God. When you have gone longer than you’ve ever gone before without succumbing to the temptation, celebrate with a friend and thank the Lord. Celebrate his grace by praising his name.

Father, I am thankful that in Christ I am a new creation. I believe what you say: the old has passed away and the new has come. Let me be who I am in Christ. Let me take hold of all Christ offers. I thank you for giving me grace—grace to see my sin, grace to hate my sin and grace to overcome my sin. All of this is an evidence of your work in my life, and I thank you for it. Help me to celebrate day-by-day what you are doing in and through me.

What Now? Consider joining our 31 Days of Purity Facebook group. It is optional, but you will find it a good place to go for discussion and encouragement. (Note: that Facebook group is for men only; here is one for Women Supporting Men).

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article explaining why I believe Pope Francis is a false teacher. This generated a fair bit of controversy and brought many responses (most of which were, thankfully, both measured and kind). One critique I heard several times was this: “You do not understand the Roman Catholic view of justification; if you understood Catholic theology you would see the pope as a defender of truth rather than an opponent of truth.” I do not wish to say that I know Catholic theology better than my Catholic friends, so I would like to try something different today.

I believe there is a vast gulf between justification as the Bible teaches it and justification as Rome teaches it. We agree on the problem: we are sinful people who have alienated ourselves from God and are thus in need of salvation. But we disagree in very significant ways as to how sinful people can receive that salvation. The thing is, Rome believes this too. The Catholic Church understands that there is a gulf between us and they deem it every bit as serious as I do.

What I would like to do today is put aside my understanding or misunderstanding of Roman Catholic theology. Instead, let’s look at the way the Roman Catholic Church understands what I believe. What I have found is that the Roman Catholic Church understands my theology very well. Many years ago the Council of Trent closely examined the doctrine of the Protestant Reformers and responded to it with a series of canons. As they did that, they declared my faith anathema, an abomination to God. While Trent happened a long time ago, the canons have never been rescinded. Vatican II, despite its emphasis on ecumenicism, did not nullify or modify the canons of Trent (see here for an explanation from Catholic Answers).

So instead of having me explain Catholic theology and point out concerns, let’s allow Roman Catholicism to explain my Protestant view (using EWTN’s translation of the canons).

If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. (Canon 9)
I believe that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required and nothing else needs to be cooperated with, to obtain the grace of justification. Rome understands exactly what I believe here and rejects it. (Rom 3:20-28, Eph 2:8)

If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema. (Canon 12)
I believe this! I believe that justifying faith is confidence in God’s divine mercy which remits sin for the sake of Christ and on the basis of the work of Christ. It is this—faith—and nothing else that justifies us. (Rom 3:28, John 1:12)

If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema. (Canon 14)
This may require some nuance, because I do not believe that I am absolved from sin because I believe I am absolved from sin; however, I do hold, as the Council says here, that faith in Christ alone does absolve sin and justify sinners. (Rom 5:1)

If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema. (Canon 24)
I believe that good works—works that bring glory to God—are the fruit and proof of justification. I deny that they are in any way the cause of justification’s increase and preservation. (Gal 3:1-3, Gal 5:1-3)

If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema. (Canon 30)
I believe this precious truth and will fight to the death for it! I believe that at the moment of justification the sinner’s guilt and punishment are removed to such an extent that no debt remains to be discharged in this world or in purgatory before he can enter into heaven. (Rom 5:1, Col 2:13-14)

If anyone says that the Catholic doctrine of justification as set forth by the holy council in the present decree, derogates in some respect from the glory of God or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and does not rather illustrate the truth of our faith and no less the glory of God and of Christ Jesus, let him be anathema. (Canon 33)
This is the heart of the issue, isn’t it? The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, as laid out by the Council of Trent, and as systematized in the canons, does that very thing—it diminishes the glory of God and the merits of Jesus Christ. It adds to Christ’s work. To add anything to Christ’s work is to destroy it altogether.

As I read the canons of the Council of Trent I see a systematic explanation and thorough denial of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I see that Rome understands what I believe and declares it anathema. Of course it is her right to do this, but let’s not miss some important implications: Whatever else Rome teaches, she will not teach that we are justified solely by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. If she teaches a gospel that adds to the work of Christ, she teaches a false gospel, doesn’t she? And if Francis is the head of the organization that states this as official doctrine, if he is her chief defender and propagator, I must judge him a false teacher. What else could I do?

Photo credit: Shutterstock